With their impressive size and luxurious white coat, the Great Pyrenees is a truly majestic dog. But some breed fans of the “Pyr,” as they’re nicknamed, feel that when they have a muddy coat, one that shows they’ve been out with the flocks or digging holes in the backyard, that’s what’s truly magnificent to behold. While the AKC calls the breed the Great Pyrenees, they are also called the Pyrenean Mountain Dogs elsewhere. In their native France, this livestock breed is sometimes called the “Patou,” but more formally, “Le Chien de Montagne des Pyrenees,” which translates to the dog of the mountains.
Ancient Livestock Guardians
Thousands of years ago in the mountains of Asia Minor, the area which includes modern-day Turkey, this breed’s ancestors played vital roles in human survival. These livestock guardians helped shepherds keep valuable flocks safe. Eventually, some of these large, usually white, dogs trekked westward with owners and flocks. They migrated to what would become the Basque Country, located on the northwestern edge of the Pyrenean Mountains between France and Spain. Also known as the Pyrenees, this area has rugged land with steep cliffs and high waterfalls.
In the winter, the dogs would protect flocks grazing in the warmer valleys. In the summer, canine guardians and the sheep moved to higher elevations. No matter the season or location, the dogs kept a watchful eye on cattle, sheep, and homestead, and protected against wolves and bears. These dogs were especially valued for their ability to stay with and guard flocks of sheep without human supervision.
Living Among Flocks
Over the centuries, these dogs evolved to live among flocks, regarding themselves as both members and guardians. Their calm nature allowed them to move through flocks of sheep without scaring them. The white coat hid them from predators until it was too late, as the dogs then showed what made them fierce protectors. Their dense coat also protected them from the cold mountain air. Pyrs tend to be alert at night, the time when most predators struck. And because they had to act on their own while guarding flocks, they still have a very independent nature today.
A common misperception is that the Pyrenees is a member of the Mastiff family. DNA evidence indicates the Pyrenees and Mastiffs are not related. In fact, Pyrs appear to be more closely related to Mediterranean breeds like the Pharaoh Hound, Cirneco dell’Etna, Ibizan Hound, Komondor, and Kuvasz.
Pyrs as Royal Favorites
Great Pyrenees history includes plenty of accounts of early modern and Victorian European royals owning this breed, some of which have been disputed. According to legend, King Louis XIV of France supposedly named the Pyrenees the Royal Dog of France in 1665. He was known as a collector and lover of animals, including more than 200 hunting dogs. However, his choice of the Pyrenees seems odd, since he isn’t widely mentioned as owning one at this point. About ten years late in 1675, the king’s 8-year-old son fell in love with a Great Pyrenees on a visit to Barèges, located in the French Pyrenees. According to historians of the Great Pyrenees Club of America, the prince brought the dog back home with him.
In 1677, important military and political official the Marquis de Louvois also visited the Barèges area and returned home with a Great Pyrenees. These events popularized the breed with the French aristocracy, and the Great Pyrenees became fashionable and effective estate guardians. This importation also created a market for shepherds to supply puppies to the upper classes and upwardly mobile. Other famous reported owners of Great Pyrenees include Queen Marie Antoinette of France and Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.
Today, most Great Pyrenees historians accept that these accounts are probably (or mostly) true. Joan Ziehl, breed historian for the Great Pyrenees Club of America emphasizes how royal attention changed the breed. “When the royals ‘found’ the Pyrenees, it created for the first time a need for two types — one large and rangy for the farmers, and the other shorter with less coat and more of a protector of the mansion for the wealthy. From these two types, the modern Pyrenees was developed.”
Bringing the Great Pyrenees to America
In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette brought the first Great Pyrenees to the United States. He gave the two dogs, both males to dog enthusiast John Stuart Skinner. Skinner later wrote a well-received book about dogs, called The Dog and the Sportsman in which he described the pair and recounted their importation. Regardless, some accounts describe these two male Pyrs to the America’s first breeding pair, when in this book, there is no mention of Lafayette ever bringing a female Pyrenees to America.
The Great Pyrenees owes its existence in America to Mary Crane and her husband, Francis, rather than the Marquis de Lafayette. Mary Crane, the daughter of a Massachusetts governor, was a Boston socialite and pet owner. She fell in love with the breed in 1930, after a friend returned from Europe with a pair of Pyr puppies. Not long before, the breed had been formalized in France, thanks to the foundation of the breed club, the Réunion des Amateurs de Chiens Pyrénées. The Pyr breed standard (the basis for later Pyr breed standards) was first published in 1927.
In 1931, Crane imported two Pyrs from Europe. The female, Anie, would die of distemper, but the male, Urdos, would go on to become the first Great Pyrenees to be shown at an AKC show (1932), sire of the first Pyrenees litter born in America (1933), and the first AKC champion Great Pyrenees (1934). Crane later referred to him as the father of the breed in America.
Mary Crane, Champion of The Great Pyrenees
Crane’s Basquaerie Great Pyrenees kennel produced many “firsts” for the Great Pyrenees. The outstanding dogs hailing from her kennel include the first Pyr obedience titlist and the first AKC Working Group winner. She brought the breed to the attention of the dog-loving public. Her wealth and social clout helped open doors, and the AKC recognized the Great Pyrenees as a regular member of the Working Group in 1934. “Her talents were organization and promotion,” says Ziehl. “She was unflagging in her promotion of the Great Pyrenees, and brought the breed the AKC recognition she desired.”
The Cranes made repeated trips to Europe, brushing elbows with both royalty and the fabulously wealthy, many of whom kept huge kennels of Pyrenees. They always brought four or five dogs home with them, eventually importing 60 Pyrenees from a variety of Europe’s finest bloodlines.
Trouble for the Great Pyrenees in Europe
By the time of their last trip, in 1939, World War II had already cut off supplies needed to feed dogs. One of France’s top breeders brought Crane seven famished Pyrs, knowing their only hope of survival would be in America. The dogs and their bloodline were saved, though the breeder was never heard from again.
“Mrs. Crane was clearly the savior of the breed,” says Ziehl. “Without her, I surely doubt that the dog we know today would have survived in Europe. There were desperate times in France, where feeding a kennel of dogs was unthinkable. These people could barely feed themselves. She became a lifeline for many French breeders to save their bloodlines by taking the dogs and shipping them to the U.S.”
Of course, not every endeavor of the Cranes turned out as hoped. During World War II, the couple donated many Great Pyrenees to the Dogs for Defense Program, but none of them worked out and all were eventually returned. Ziehl comments, “The largest problem was they protected as far as they could roam. With no fences or containers they scattered, finding and protecting people and animals alike.”
The Return of the Working Great Pyrenees
Around the same time, the wolf and bear population began to dwindle in the Pyrenees Mountains, so Pyrs found that their role as flock guardians was becoming less in demand. By the end of World War II, few working Pyrs remained in the mountains. Eventually, governments decided to reintroduce wolves to the area, but the plan worked a little too well. The wolf population grew to the point they once again preyed on the flocks, causing significant losses until someone remembered the old way of protecting the flocks: with dogs.
In 1993, officials decided to reintroduce dogs as flock guardians. It didn’t go well at first, as a very limited number of Pyrs from working lines still existed. Even those dogs needed training and somebody who knew how to train them. But eventually, the dogs were back at work, keeping the wolves at bay. North American ranchers took note and began using Pyrs to guard their livestock. Today, it’s not a rare sight to see a flock of sheep accompanied by a Great Pyrenees, with no person around.
Of course, as with most breeds, the Great Pyrenees’ great talent today lies in its role as a family companion. “Fewer than 10% of Pyrenees bred in the world are used as working dogs,” says Ziehl. “The others not used as working dogs have adapted to become house dogs, channeling their need to protect their families. The need to protect will always be a vital part of the Pyrenees DNA.”